“You would never do a stunt without a stunt coordinator; the same is true of intimate scenes”: Matthew López on Red, White & Royal Blue
Red, White & Royal Blue is the new Prime Video romcom based on the New York Times bestseller of the same name by Casey McQuiston. It follows member of the British Royal Family, Prince Henry (Nicholas Galitzine), the so-called “spare” to the heir to the throne, who has an adversarial relationship with the First Son of the US president (Uma Thurman), Alex (Taylor Zakhar Perez). An international incident is caused when their scuffling at Henry’s sister’s wedding topples the ginormous – and expensive – cake. Thrown together to be best buds for the sake of keeping up experiences, their bickering unexpectedly turns into sexual tension, and lust into love. But with the public pressure and media scrutiny on both of their every move, a bona fide relationship is far from simple for the pair.
Tony Award-winning playwright Matthew López (The Inheritance) has taken on both co-writing and directing duty for the first time, and he’s had a lot of fun leaning into both the comedy and romance of the story, accentuating the wit of the novel, not only in the exchanges between Henry and Alex but the supporting cast too, with the cultural differences either side of the pond particularly played for laughs. He’s also not shied away from capturing the full-blown passion and steaminess of his lovers’ relationship that had people hooked on the book, making the movie feel like it’s breaking new ground, particularly given how few big-budget rom-coms have a queer relationship at their centre. Both Galitzine and Perez are 100% game from the get-go, with a sizzling on-screen chemistry, whether they’re feuding or fornicating, while seeing Thurman pop up as the leader of the free world, complete with a Southern drawl, is a delight.
The Upcoming spoke to López about his first foray into filmmaking, how he approached adapting such a beloved book for the screen and the importance of keeping its sexiest scenes in.
Hi, Matthew, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. First off, for people who may not know anything about the film or the book it’s based on, what can we expect from Red, White & Royal Blue?
It’s a romcom about two people who hate each other, who discover that they love each other. The son of the US president, played by Taylor Zakhar Perez, has a longstanding feud with the grandson of the king of England, played by Nicholas Galitzine. They cause an international incident over a very expensive, destroyed cake at a wedding. They have to pretend that they’re best friends in order to smooth things over, and then find they actually like each other, and then they find that they love each other.
Obviously, you’ve spent most of your career in theatre. What made you want to take the plunge into film? And why was this the right story for your first time both co-writing and directing a movie?
I’d been looking for a movie to direct for quite some time. At the time, I had just opened The Inheritance on Broadway, and my musical, Some Like It Hot, was still several years away from making it onto Broadway, and so I thought it was a good time to do this. And I was looking for things. And then I read this book, and I just fell madly in love with it – it was at a 10 on the passion scale for me. I didn’t necessarily think that this would be the first movie that I’d make. I thought maybe I would start a little smaller; I thought maybe they’d give me a million dollars and I’d make some small little thing somewhere. But, instead, we made this, and it just felt right. Because – the scale, the size notwithstanding – it just was a story that I knew how to tell. And that I knew I could spend two years of my life working on, happily.
There’s always so much opportunity but it’s also a challenge, adapting a novel or trying to condense 500 pages into a screenplay. I read that you didn’t want your film to be a citation, but an adaptation. What did you mean by that and what was your approach in that sense?
There are certain things that you’d just be sent to prison for omitting. There are certain things it’s just malpractice if you don’t put in, you know? And then it really does become, at the end of the day, a judgement call. And it’s less a judgement call as to what the fans want to see, unfortunately – I hate to report that – and it really is just a judgement call on what the movie needs. And understanding that a movie isn’t a book. The goal that I set for myself – which was the thing that led every decision that we made – was, at the end of this film, do we feel the same way we felt when we finished reading the book? No matter how we get there – because the journey will be different, because it’s a different medium, and then the constraints of time are what they are – but when we land, when we set the audience down safely on the other end of the story, they need to feel the same way they felt at the end of the book. That was my goal. That was what we were always aiming for.
Of course, your central cast were going to be crucial because it’s not just about getting the individual actors right, but also that on-screen chemistry – which is so there. To pull off some of these scenes they must have needed to have a lot of trust. How did you decide on Taylor and Nicholas and work with them?
That’s precisely right. I mean, by the time I had landed on them, I knew that they were individually the right actors for the roles. I didn’t know, until we did a chemistry read, until we actually put them together, what we’d have. It could be oil and water, it could just be a disaster. And we also knew that if it wasn’t going to work, then we didn’t have a film. I have to be honest with you, we just got lucky. I wish I could tell you there was some great sort of mastermind at work there; we just got lucky. We did a chemistry reading on Zoom, if you can imagine such a thing, and within five minutes I texted my producer, Sarah Schechter, and I said “We’ve got ’em. There they are”. And we all knew it, watching it, we all knew it. And they knew it! In doing it, they were having the time of their lives over Zoom. And so it was really evident from almost instantly that these two actors, who were very different from one another, were the right ones to play these parts. The trust was built over time. We shot a lot of these intimacy scenes about two thirds of the way through the filming, and that was scheduled very, very consciously. I needed them to not only trust one another, I needed them to have gone through long, hard days together, I needed them to sort of like lose faith in me from time to time and have to rely on each other, you know? All the inevitable things that happen when you’re building something like this with people. I needed them to really feel like a team so that by the time we actually did get into those intimacy scenes, that trust was unquestionable.
You were working with an intimacy coordinator as well, which can sometimes be divisive – or at least there are quite different opinions on them. But when you speak to some actors they remark positively on how it can take all of the guesswork out of sex scenes, and it becomes more like choreographing a dance scene.
I think people who don’t like intimacy coordinators are either using the wrong ones or don’t really know how to use an intimacy coordinator. I think this idea that an intimacy coordinator is there to play referee, like, “You can’t do that!”, with the whistle and everything is not my experience. And my experience, the experience that I had with Robbie on this film, was they are a facilitator: you would never do a stunt without a stunt coordinator, you would never ask an actor to do a stunt without making sure that it was safe and making sure that you could actually film it without wasting time and money. And the same is true of intimate scenes: you need to make sure your actors are safe. But you also need to make sure that you’re getting what you need on the day, right? And also, those actors, especially in this film, are in incredibly vulnerable situations. You’re basically naked, you have a modesty garment on, you’re in bed all day long with your costar, the last thing you want is your director coming over every five minutes, saying, “Alright love, put your hand here, put your hand there, touch him here, kiss him there.” Nobody wants that. And so what I loved about it was the four of us – Taylor, Nick, Robbie and I – got to really collaborate on what the scene would be, how we should film it, what we needed to do, and then we brought in my first AD and our director of photography to collaborate with us. I think, actually, at the end of the day, what you see is the result of the work that we did. So yes, on the surface, it’s about making sure the actors are safe, and that’s first and foremost; but if you know how to use an intimacy coordinator correctly, if you know how to get the best out of their work, you can create something that is really honest and believable, and that doesn’t look staged. It actually feels very, very natural and organic to the story you’re telling.
I imagine it was also important to include those scenes because you wanted to capture the steaminess of the book, but then also balance that with the humour and with the emotional moments as well?
I mean one of the hallmarks of the novel is that Alex and Henry have really great sex, and they are really into each other physically. And if you ignore that, if you elide that, you’re not really telling the story correctly. So I knew that I had to get that right, and I knew that we had to believe it. So it was never a question, and it was never a question in my work with the studio or the producers that these scenes would be in the movie. You’d be surprised, given what you would think about what these processes are like, there was very little pushback. It was about the “how”, but never about the “what”.
Having a big-budget romcom with a gay relationship at the centre of it actually feels quite groundbreaking, despite it being 2023. What do you think it means to people to see themselves represented that way?
It’s funny, it is 2023 and we’re talking about the groundbreaking nature of seeing something that we’ve been seeing in heterosexual storytelling for decades. And, yeah, there we are. All I knew is that… maybe it’s ego on my part, maybe it’s just determination, but I just wasn’t going to be the person to have this chance, to have this budget, to have this story, with all the attention on it, because the book is so popular… I’m not going to be the guy who fumbled the ball. Maybe some people think that there should have been more [sex scenes] than there are. But, certainly, I got to do the thing I wanted to do in this movie. And it was important to me because the conversations I was having in the prep for this movie, and these scenes particularly, I was like, “Sex between two men, consensual sex between any two people, can be a beautiful thing. It’s nothing to shy away from and it’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”
The great thing about the film is it balances so much the humour with all this passion and emotion. In particular, I loved the playing up of the cultural differences with witty lines like, “I’m gonna Brexit your head from your body.” I wonder if you have a favourite line or a favourite scene?
My absolute favourite scene of the film was the overnight shoot that we did at the Victoria and Albert Museum, because we actually got to do on that night what Alex and Henry do in the story, which is, in effect, break into the museum – we had permission, of course – and spend the night alone in the museum. We got there around 9.30pm at night, we started filming at about 10.30pm, and we had until about 4.30am when the sun came up – because it was of course an English summer! – so were pressed for time. But for those few hours, we genuinely had the run of the place, and it was magical. And I think that we all felt that magic, and hopefully it shows up in the movie in that scene. It was the scene I was looking forward to filming the most, and it didn’t disappoint.
A few words about the incredible Uma Thurman: what was it like having her in your film as the US president?
Amazing. The privilege to get to work with one of your heroes and to walk away from it understanding why she actually is your hero, and to then also know that she’s your friend as a result of this process… It was a real gift.
Red, White & Royal Blue is released on Prime Video on 11th August 2023.
Watch the trailer for Red, White & Royal Blue here: